IN A FEW weeks, Israel will face a critical decision affecting its future -- a decision not about the Arabs but about itself.
Its politicians at last will have to vote on reforming an election system that has had the country walking a dangerous political high wire for years, made its governments vulnerable and party to bribery and chained down its economic growth.
The world is paying no attention; this is an internal matter of a small country. But the outcome has considerable international importance.
The reforms could give Israeli prime ministers the strength of proven national public support in dealing with Arab negotiators. They no longer would have to tailor their positions to suit tiny fringe parties.
Now, Israelis choose members of the Knesset, who choose the prime ministers. But Israel is so closely divided between Likud and Labor that both usually need other parties to get the necessary majority.
Since it takes only about 1 percent of the vote for a party to win Knesset representation, the little groups of the left or right become big-shot power brokers.
To get their support is simple. All Labor or Likud has to do is to outbid the other -- offer more and juicier ministries. Knowing they may not be around long, the new ministers quickly set about milking the ministries for money and jobs for their supporters.
That's scandalous enough. But the deepest damage is that the midget ministers fight any move to take factories or airlines or communications systems out of their control by privatization -- or even impose efficiency. Those are essentials for Israel if it is ever to give its overly socialized economy a stimulating kick in the rear end. Only with an awakened economy can Israel achieve enough economic power to absorb immigrant waves, relying even more on itself and overseas friends than foreign governments -- meaning the United States.
That is called independence.
An Israeli diplomat I respect said this to me:
"The system affects the sanity of our democracy. Voters are sick and tired of it. Lots of good people will not go into politics anymore."
But lots still do. Some have worked for years to push a reform bill establishing direct election of a prime minister by the voters. He would appoint -- and control -- the cabinet himself.
After he is elected, the prime minister could be ousted only by 70 of the 120 Knesset members. Now it takes just 61, so prime
ministers constantly look over their shoulders to see who is plotting to bring down their governments.
In the reform bill, the minimum election vote necessary for Knesset representation would be raised. That would eliminate some of the fringe parties. If Knesset members did oust the prime minister before the end of his four-year term, they would pay a price. They would have to face a new election for their own seats, which could diminish their enthusiasm for changing prime ministers.
The Labor Party, which is out, has committed itself to the reform. The Likud, which is in, has not. But a number of Likud members have been pushing for it. Best known outside Israel is Benjamin Netanyahu, the head of the negotiation team now in Washington and a deputy to Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.
Others close to Shamir are against it, including some first-rate people like Defense Minister Moshe Arens. From Tel Aviv, Arens told me that after voting for the prime minister they wanted, voters might feel more comfortable about electing small-party members they happened to like, perhaps increasing the influence of the fringes.
But it's hard to see how things could be worse than with a prime minister who always has to placate or buy off some loose-cannon character.
On Dec. 22 the Likud central committee will meet to decide whether to enforce party discipline against the measure. Some Likudniks, including Netanyahu, say they will vote for it whatever happens.
A week or two later the Knesset, which has already approved the bill on a first-round ballot, will take its final vote. It will be close.
If the reform fails, it will be a setback for Israel. But one day the reformers will try again, once more taking the road toward Israel's second independence day.